Exactly four weeks from today, the NFL will be a cluster of mayhem, organized chaos and havoc. Yes, free agency starts on March 11.
From now until then, I’ll break down the Arizona Cardinals' needs and give you the 10 best free agent options at each of those positions. Let’s begin with kicker.
There is no guarantee Jay Feely will be back kicking inside University of Phoenix Stadium next season. Despite a productive year, going 30-for-36 on field goals and hitting all 37 extra points, Feely ended up in Bruce Arians’ dog house more than he should have. That was partly because he missed two field goal attempts of less than 30 yards, and partly because Feely failed to place a kickoff where Arians wanted it during the season finale.
After the season, when asked about his thoughts toward Feely's future, Arians offered this answer: “Jay is an unrestricted free agent, so it will be all business from here on out. I love Jay to death. He was a captain. Wish he would have kicked the last kickoff down the middle.”
While teams aren’t built around kickers, they’re as valuable as any linebacker or receiver. More often than not, they're the team leader in scoring -- which Feely was last season with 127 points -- and they control wins or losses with their feet, usually in critical situations. Arizona saw that first hand four times last season. In Week 1, St. Louis kicker Greg Zuerlein hit two fourth-quarter field goals, including one with 40 seconds left, to give the Rams the win. A few weeks later in Tampa, Feely hit a game-winning field goal with 1:29 left to cap a 13-0 second-half run that resulted in a win. In Week 15 at Tennessee, he hit a game-winning field goal from 41 yards in overtime, and then in the season finale, San Francisco kicker Phil Dawson hit a 40 yarder as time expired to give the Niners a 23-20 win. That loss book-ended the Cardinals’ season with game-winning field goals by NFC West opponents.
Chicago gave kicker Robbie Gould a four-year extension worth $15 million, including $9 million guaranteed, during the final week of the season. And the Cowboys signed kicker Dan Bailey to a six-year extension that, according to reports, included a $4 million signing bonus and $7.5 million guaranteed. Bailey’s extension will be worth more than $3.3 million per year, putting him in exclusive company.
Only three kickers made more than $3 million last season, topped by Gould’s $5.93 million and Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski's $5.3 million.
Feely made $1.55 million in 2013, or $51,666 per made field goal.
Of the 12 kickers on the market this year, only Indianapolis’ Adam Vinatieri and Dawson earned more than Feely. At 37, Feely is the fourth-oldest free agent kicker this year.
I’ve eliminated one kicker as a possibility for the Cardinals because they brought in Dan Carpenter last season during training camp to compete with Feely, but Feely won the job. Of the other 10, only three are in their 20s.
Two kickers from Arizona’s NFC West rivals are up for grabs -- Seattle’s Steven Hauschka and Dawson. Though Dawson and Arians have a history in Cleveland, at 39, he might not be the kicker of the future. And Hauschka, coming off a Super Bowl win, is likely to join the kickers’ millionaires club, but he’d be worth it if Arizona can get to him first.
There are three other intriguing names on the market this year. Vinatieri and Arians worked together in Indianapolis, and there is no doubting Vinatieri’s experience -- two game-winning kicks in Super Bowls -- which could come in handy for a Cardinals’ team ready to make a run at the Niners and Seahawks. But Arizona would most likely have to talk him down from his $2 million salary in 2013.
If the Cardinals are serious about building for the future, they might want to take a run at Graham Gano. At 26, he’s in the final year of a two-year deal with the Carolina Panthers, from which he earned $715,000 last season while making 24 of 27 field goals and all 42 extra points -- all numbers that should excite Cards general manager Steve Keim. The Cardinals will undoubtedly be looking for consistency, and Jets kicker Nick Folk made 33 of 36 field goals in 2013.
The Cardinals' braintrust had a chance to watch six of the top free agents this year line up across the field.
Finding a kicker might be Keim’s toughest challenge during the offseason, especially if the Cardinals want to make a serious run at the top of the NFC West.
Coming Thursday: Cornerbacks